It could be said that we go to the movies in the first place for the thrills. The desire to experience new stories, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to live out exciting events that might otherwise never be possible. We long for escapism.
But that’s not what psychological thrillers are all about. Psychological thrillers focus less on external adventure and threat and more on the interior worlds of heroes and villains whose grasp on reality is dangerously close to failing. They are stories of paranoia, delusion, phobias, and abuse. They exploit the anxieties of the audience while providing much-needed catharsis, putting our fears out in the open and revealing that they can either be conquered or, at the very least, have genuine validity.
However, it can be difficult to pin down which films are psychological thrillers and which ones are just thrillers in which the characters – like they would in any other genre – are motivated by their own, personal psychology. Like many genres of storytelling, the criteria can be a little nebulous and we’re not going to get hung up on that. We are, instead, just going to focus on the films we think are absolutely, 100% thrilling, and absolutely, 100% rooted in psychological anxiety.
These are our picks for the greatest psychological thrillers ever made, with only one caveat: there’s only one film from each director, because some filmmakers make a cottage industry of this genre, and it’s important to share as many brilliant films from as many different perspectives as possible.
George Cukor’s Gaslight isn’t just a psychological thriller, it’s officially synonymous with manipulation and horror. Literally, this film’s very title has entered the popular lexicon to describe a form of psychological abuse. Ingrid Bergman stars as a young opera singer who meets the love of her life, a handsome older gentleman played by Charles Boyer. But no sooner are they married and move into the London townhouse – where her mother was mysteriously murdered many years ago – does the relationship devolve into a nightmare. Our heroine, it seems, is losing her mind. Or is she?
Gaslight is a remake of a 1940 British thriller (which was almost lost to history after MGM bought the remake rights and tried to destroy the original negatives). And while it may have twists that seem telegraphed today, now that we all know what “gaslighting” is, the bleak and angry heart of the film still pumps blood. Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance, as a woman pushed to the brink of her mental endurance, is vulnerable and raw, trapped and clawing, captivatingly genuine, and Boyer’s twisted villainy will always be the stuff of goosebumps.
Rear Window (1954)
No catalogue of the great thrillers – psychological or otherwise – would be complete without Alfred Hitchcock, whose films transformed and frequently exemplify the genre. Rope, Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, and Vertigo all arguably deserve their own entry here, but if we have to narrow Hitchcock’s oeuvre down to one timeless classic, Rear Window deserves that honor.
Rear Window stars James Stewart stars as a thrill-seeking photographer, now trapped in his apartment, and going a little stir-crazy, after breaking his legs in a work-related accident. So he amuses himself by spying on his neighbors, each of whom has their own unique personalities and foibles. It’s an obsession that infuriates his girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly, and which may go too far, since he’s pretty sure he just saw one of his neighbors murder his wife. Maybe. Kinda.
Hitchcock films this whole movie from the interior of Stewart’s apartment, limiting the range of movement we expect from a motion picture, creating a claustrophobic environment and transforming everyone into voyeurs. By only witnessing what our hero sees, we don’t even think to question his interpretation of the crime. So whenever any of the other characters point out just how thin the actual evidence is (and it’s thin indeed) we’re forced to either deny logic and fall into our hero’s paranoid mentality or admit – begrudgingly – that we may have been cleverly tricked.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ingenious and sultry thriller Les Diaboliques stars Véra Clouzot as the long-suffering wife of an abusive husband, played by Paul Merisse. She’s so isolated that her only friend is her husband’s mistress, played by Simone Signoret, because she’s the only other person who understands just what a monster he is. What a twisted and unexpected situation in which to find oneself; it’s exactly the sort of pressure cooker relationship that seems likely to lead to murder.
Which, of course, it does. At first, it goes just swimmingly. And then… the body disappears.
The allure of Les Diaboliques goes well beyond its twisty-turny plot (which is twisty-turny as all heck). Clouzot and Signoret are iconic as dual femme fatales, one sensitive and guilt-ridden, the other unflappable and icy, thrown together into increasingly bizarre circumstances and thinking out all of their unthinkable choices. Les Diaboliques sinks you into a pool of suspense and suspicion, and forces you to drown in it.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Everybody likes to think that their child is perfect, even if they do bad things sometimes. But in the seemingly idyllic suburban world of The Bad Seed, Rhoda, an eight-year-old girl played by Patty McCormack isn’t just a little naughty sometimes. She’s a serial killer who knows just how to manipulate adults into thinking she’s a precious little angel.
A child serial killer is frightening enough in the abstract, but the real horror show of The Bad Seed is watching Nancy Kelly, playing Rhoda’s mother, resist and then eventually arrive at that shocking realization that her little girl is an unrepentant murderer. Both McCormack and Kelly were Oscar-nominated for their roles – as was Eileen Heckart as the mother of one of the victims – but Kelly steals this show, peeling away the pieces of her sanity as she realizes just how evil her own precious angel truly is, and exposing a tangle of raw nerves underneath.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
In the bizarre and grotesque What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, filmmaker Robert Aldrich exposes what appears to be a deep-seated loathing for the entertainment industry, specifically the lifelong toll it takes on young performers. The film tells the story “Baby” Jane Hudson, a child star of the 1920s whose career eventually took a back seat to her sister, Blanche, who was the superior actor. A tragic accident left Blanche paralyzed, and left Jane blamed for the tragedy, and begrudgingly acceptable a role as her sister’s unwilling caretaker.
Decades later, the Hudson house is a rat’s nest of festering resentment. Blanche, played by Joan Crawford, lives upstairs as the mercy of Jane, played by Bette Davis. The abuse Blanche suffers is shocking, and the decay of Jane’s psyche is repulsive, but both Crawford and Davis are wholly committed to making this bizarre mutually destructive life seem plausible. These, the movie argues, are the larger than life consequences of living larger than life, and the gruesome fate that befalls these sisters plays out as though it was ripped from particularly salacious headlines, a tabloid story that couldn’t be, and shouldn’t be, but feels wholly true. Riveting performances and prurient dread await you.
Shock Corridor (1963)
As a filmmaker, Samuel Fuller reveled in pushing narrative boundaries, and in his absolutely electric psychological thriller Shock Corridor he practically burst through them. Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a journalist obsessed with winning the Pulitzer Prize, who embarks on a daring scheme to catch a headline. He will go undercover in a mental hospital, live amongst the inmates, and get to the bottom of an unsolved murder.
It’s the kind of idea that sounds clever on paper, but puts Barrett in a harrowing position. Without backup, without a confidante, without any chance of respite or escape, he’s plunged into an environment of abuse, paranoia and delusion, and repeatedly falls under the spell of his fellow inmates. Whether or not he solves the murder becomes a secondary concern; he’s trapped in a never-ending battle for his own sanity. Outstanding performances, disturbing writing, and daring imagery keep Shock Corridor shocking over 60 years later.
The almost threadbare simplicity of Repulsion may be jarring. Catherine Deneuve stars as Carol, a young woman living with her sister Helen, who is repulsed by her sister’s boyfriend, her own would-be suitors, and menial elements of her life which would, under usual circumstances, be minor annoyances. When Helen suddenly leaves town for a romantic getaway Carol is left to her own devices, and finds herself suddenly mired in her own anxieties, phobias, and, gradually, hallucinations.
The majority of Repulsion is just Catherine Deneuve fraying her nerves in an apartment, and yet that only makes her descent into psychotropic horror seem universal. Devoid of contrivance and narrative trickery, Repulsion highlights the subconscious associations Carol has, revealing a web of unchecked, undiagnosed trauma that has finally been given an opportunity to fester, free from seemingly unwelcome distractions of other people.
Brian De Palma crafted the majority of his career around acrobatically photographed, labyrinthine psychological, and frequently sexual thrillers. But although Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Body Double and Raising Cain are all stellar, whirlwind shockers, it’s his first foray into Hitchcockian suspense that stands out. Sisters is a twisted, grotesque, unexpected delight.
The story of Sisters takes many sharp turns, beginning with an amusing anecdote of voyeurism, segueing into young love and jealousy, careening into murder, and then returning once again to voyeurism. From there on out we’re in Nancy Drew territory, as a plucky young reporter, played by Jennifer Salt, investigating a murder she’s sure was committed by an aspiring actress, played by Superman’s Margot Kidder, or possibly her identical twin sister. That is, until De Palma’s Grand Guignol climax, where the rules go out the window and so does the mystery, as though the filmmaker couldn’t wait to show you just how disturbing and fascinating his imagination is.
The Baby (1973)
One of the strangest psychological thrillers you’ll ever see, and in a bizarre way one of the best, is Ted Post’s disturbing grindhouse cult classic The Baby. This discomforting tale tells the story of a social worker named Anne, played by Anjanette Comer, whose latest assignment is the Wadsworth family. An abusive mother, two abusive sisters, and a grown man called only “Baby,” who lives in a crib, wears a diaper, cannot speak, and whose disability checks keep the family afloat.
The horrors that Baby endures on a daily basis are frightening, but what’s more, Anne begins to discover that Baby’s condition may exclusively be the result of the Wadsworth’s abuse, and that he could be capable of living a typical, self-sufficient existence. It’s only when Anne decides to rescue Baby that we realize just how far the Wadsworths are willing to go to preserve their lifestyle, and how far Anne is willing to go to protect him. The Baby is strange, bold, and creepy in the extreme, and it does not go where you would expect.
The Conversation (1974)
In the early 1970s, between making The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola directed one of the best psychological thrillers ever made. The Conversation stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who records a conversation between two young lovers, and examines and re-examines the audio obsessively, thinking he may have uncovered a murderous plot.
Inspired by Michael Antonioni’s similar Blow-Up – about a photographer who keeps enhancing an image, thinking it’s evidence in a murder – Coppola’s film adds governmental paranoia into the mix, and highlights the lonely existence of a man who knows just how little privacy there is in the modern world, specifically because he’s so good at invading it. It’s a profound character piece, featuring one of the most nuanced performances of Hackman’s career, and a smart and unexpected thriller about how little we know, no matter how much we hear.
The first film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, based on the novel Red Dragon, goes deeper into psychological terror than any of the others (at least until the TV show came along). Michael Mann’s Manhunter stars William Peterson as Will Graham, an FBI profiler who’s so talented at getting into the mind of a killer that he loses his own personality and drowns in the darkness. Will is on the trail of “The Tooth Fairy,” a serial killer home invader with a unique M.O., and once again starts to lose himself in his work, at the cost of his own soul.
Hannibal Lecter appears, inexplicably named “Hannibal Lecktor,” and played with a disarming casualness by Brian Cox, whose take on the character is more insidious and less mannered than the other actors who have taken on the role. That gives him the power to worm his way into Will’s mind more nimbly, until they’re chatting on the phone like teenagers. Meanwhile, as Mann brings out the madness in his protagonist, he’s exploring the humanity of his murderer, Francis Dollarhyde, played by an impossibly frightening, and impossibly tragic Tom Noonan. Stylish and insightful and terrifying, and in some respects, perhaps the best adaptation of Harris’s work to date.
The Stepfather (1987)
“Wait a minute,” Jerry Blake asks his wife. “Who am I here?” He really means it. Terry O’Quinn plays Jerry, a serial killer who insinuates himself into the life of single moms, marries them, and tries to live the perfect American suburban life. When they fail to live up to his Reagan Era conservative values, he starts charming the next single mom, living two lives simultaneously, and eventually murdering the family that offends him.
Joseph Ruben’s exquisite and frightening psychological thriller covers all the angles: the suspicion of a new father figure, the hypocrisy of the nuclear family, the perverse logistics of living multiple lives simultaneously. And at the center of it all is O’Quinn, giving an all-timer performance as one of cinema’s most fascinating monsters, who really does seem to be searching for what American culture promised him, and who seems utterly incapable of understanding that he was lied to.
Dead Ringers (1988)
David Cronenberg spent the majority of his career exploring the terrors of the human body, and our unnerving psychological obsessions with our own organics. Our various organs, including the brain, are inextricably linked – literally and thematically – and are all too easily malformed by his protagonists and villains. And while he’s made several classic films along these lines, it is perhaps Dead Ringers that stands out as his crowning accomplishment.
Jeremy Irons co-stars alongside Jeremy Irons, as identical twin gynecologists who share each other’s work, each other’s lives, and – without telling them – the same women. Elliot is confident and domineering, Beverly is shy and sensitive, and when they begin a romantic relationship with one of their patients, played by Geneviève Bujold, the strain becomes too much to bear. Beverly sinks into depression and delusion, imagining his patients as bizarre mutations, and Elliot soon sinks right in with him, choosing to live with his brother, even on the brink of madness, no matter what the cost.
Irons gives two devastating performances, with subtle, impeccable editing creating the unmistakable illusion, using old-fashioned techniques, that he’s somehow cloned himself. Dead Ringers is a technical marvel, and a sublimely weird, twisted psychological thriller.
The Vanishing (1988)
George Sluizer’s absorbing Dutch thriller Spoorloos (aka The Vanishing) tells the story of a young couple on a road trip. In the middle of a rest stop, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) excuses herself to get drinks. Hours later she has not returned, and Rex (Gene Vervoets) cannot find her. Years later, the mystery still unsolved, Rex remains obsessed with solving the mystery of her disappearance and will do anything for the answer.
It’s easy to understand Rex’s obsession. It’s less clear what Saskia’s kidnapper, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), has done with her, let alone why. The Vanishing flits back and forth between cat and mouse, teasing the answers and unveiling everyday villainy. It’s absolutely captivating how matter-of-fact the grotesque imagination and humdrum rehearsals of a terrible crime can be, and by the end of Sluizer’s film, we too are dying to know the solution to this insidious puzzle. And like Rex, we may very well regret that we asked.
(George Sluizer remade his own film in America in 1993, with Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges, and it’s a textbook example of how Hollywood can ruin a brilliant story by focusing on pleasing a crowd instead of reveling in their torment. Whatever you do, see the original instead!)
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Jacob Singer is a mild-mannered postal worker, recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a bloody tour in the Vietnam War. His family is no longer with him, his son died years ago, and he’s just barely putting the pieces of his life together with his new girlfriend… when he sees a tentacle on the subway. And mysterious men with blurry faces. All the demons of hell seem out to get Jacob Singer, but is it his PTSD affecting him, or something far, far more sinister?
Adrian Lyne is a director best-known for sensual cinema, films like Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful, and 9 1/2 Weeks, but in Jacob’s Ladder, he seems eager to explore the opposite of attraction. The repulsion that Jacob, played by an impressively vulnerable Tim Robbins, has for his present visions and his ugly past permeates into the grimy cityscapes around him. They represent a Hell of his mind’s own making, and by watching his story we are trapped in Hell with him. Jacob’s Ladder is a surreal and captivating vision of psychological horror; it should come as no surprise that it was a direct influence on the Silent Hill franchise.
301, 302 (1995)
In Park Chul-soo’s engrossingly gross thriller 301, 302 we meet a pair of neighbors. Song-hee (Bang Eun-jin) lives in apartment 301, and she’s an aspiring chef. Yoon-hee (Hwang Shin-hye) lives in apartment 302, and she’s a writer with a debilitating phobia of food. She when Song-hee tries to make nice by cooking Yoon-hee delicious meals, she’s offended to the point of obsession when she realizes her neighbor has been throwing them away uneaten.
Why, oh why, is Yoon-hee terrified of food? Song-hee will get the answers by any means necessary, and their story takes wild and unexpected turns. The answers we receive are not the answers anybody could possibly want, and as the neighbors gradually form a unique relationship, we begin to realize that these two people should probably never have met, for the sake of sanity, for the sake of decency. But for the sake of the audience, it’s an unusual and absolutely riveting tale of cruelty and pain.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure may very well be the most hypnotic psychological thriller ever made, and quite literally. Cure tells the story of a detective, played on by Kōji Yakusho, tasked with solving an impossible series of murders. In each case a person was murdered, the murderer is found nearby, with no memory of what happened or why. And the only connection between them is a mysterious drifter named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) who doesn’t even know who he is or where he is.
What he does know, and what both Mamiya and Kurosawa employ all too well, are the techniques of hypnosis. Mamiya lulls everyone in his path into a psychologically pliable state, under they are impressionable enough to do almost anything. Kurosawa lets the technique play out for the audience as well, giving Cure a unique sense of cinematic thrall. Its horrors are tranquil. Its evils are under the skin and deep inside of you. It’s one of the very finest films of its kind, and one of the pinnacles of the psychological horror genre.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Japanese animator Satoshi Kon’s too-short directorial career comprised only four feature films before his death, all of them brilliant, as well as the unbelievably ingenious mini-series Paranoia Agent. The psychotropic and inventive thriller Perfect Blue was his debut, and it remains a watershed for the genre, cleverly foreshadowing techno horror, cracking open the perils of modern celebrity culture, and the dangers of losing oneself in their work.
Perfect Blue tells the story of a teen music icon, Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao), who decides to give up her extremely popular band and pursue a career in acting. To her fans, who refuse to allow her to change or live her own life, it’s a personal betrayal. To Mima it’s a pitfall into insecurity and a crisis of identity; who is she really? Is she who she thinks she is, who everyone else says she is, or who she plays on TV? And how is it that there’s a blog online that knows everything she’s doing, and even what she thinks while she’s doing it, if she’s not posting it herself?
Energized, creative and influential, and genuinely frightening, Perfect Blue made a mark on the thriller genre and turned Koa into a filmmaker’s filmmaker, with directors like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan both taking direct inspiration from his distinctive imagery and storytelling style.
American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is, on the surface, a serial killer story. Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a handsome yuppie in the 1980s who works in finance, takes extremely good care of his body, and lives a life of absurd luxury. He’s also homicidal, and over the course of the film murders co-workers, sex workers, and even tries to feed a cat into an ATM.
But Mary Harron’s film isn’t a mere saga of violence and brutality. It’s a bitter and incisive comedy, in which the horrors committed by Bateman are balanced by the absurdity of his fragile ego. Here is a muscular Adonis, a titan of industry, whose psyche can be shattered by the appearance of a business card more stylish than his own. The horrors of American Psycho are clear, and threatening, but the real nightmare is the possibility that even Bateman’s most violent, powerful fantasies are nothing more than an immature, macho fantasy. Or worse, that the world exists explicitly to cater to immature, macho fantasies, and enable the worst and most pathetic brand of toxic masculinity.
However you read it, American Psycho is a ripping psychological thriller, and a bitter indictment of the mentalities that feed into the so-called “American Dream,” specifically of manliness and success.
Christopher Nolan’s second and breakthrough feature stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia, who cannot make new memories. As a result, every few minutes he has to reorient himself, and ask where he is and what he is doing. Placing that man in the middle of a murder mystery is an ingenious bit of plotting. Editing the film around his point of view – i.e. telling the story in reverse order scene-by-scene so the audience is constantly re-orienting themselves too – is beyond brilliant.
Memento can’t help but feel like a “gimmick movie,” because of course, that’s what it is. The unique storytelling gimmick is undeniably part of the film’s appeal. But Memento doesn’t rest on its laurels and let the gimmick do all the work. It’s a tragic drama of cycles and reversals, of betrayal and futility. The unique psychological state of the hero propels the film in unusual directions but the story would hold up if told in chronological order, a canny bit of screenwriting that Nolan presents impeccably. Memento is still, perhaps, the filmmaker’s greatest marvel.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
David Lynch tells stories on the edge of reason, usually leaning in the other direction. Sometimes there’s only a tenuous connection to reality of any kind, but there are just enough threads connecting the filmmaker’s hallucinatory imagery and dream-logic events to our universal anxieties to make them seem powerful instead of merely weird. Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are all must-see films for enthusiasts of the psychological thriller genre, but his masterpiece may very well be Mulholland Dr.
And frankly, it’s a minor miracle that the film works at all, since it’s been repurposed from a failed TV pilot, which was given a new and completely different ending to quickly wrap up all the threads. Naomi Watts stars as a young and idealistic ingenue who moves to Hollywood and quickly takes up with an amnesiac, played by Laura Harring, who may be on the run from murderers. Together they navigate the twisted world of behind the scenes studio conspiracies, the underground dream world of independent theater and, most shockingly, a revelation that will destroy them.
Mulholland Dr. is perhaps Lynch’s most successful thriller, whether or not it’s his best film, because the new finale wraps everything up satisfactorily, while still never quite explaining what the nightmare behind the diner really was. It provides the thrills we seek, the depth we crave, and the inexplicable mysteries we couldn’t possibly solve without ruining the mystique.
A new year means new episodes!
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